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The crucial role of I/O communication

22 April 2024

Chris Knight reports from GDevCON on the vital function that Inputs and Outputs (I/O) communication plays in connecting systems, exchanging data and ensuring efficient automation

A high-level technical event for LabVIEW architects, GDevCON it offers a unique space for collaboration and idea-sharing, free from corporate oversight or control. From the numerous talks and conversations that took place, we quickly realised that many of the manufacturers had gaps or deficiencies in their existing production lines.

More specifically, these companies claimed to be absent from – and in need of – cost-effective options for motion control, fieldbus communications and a more extensive I/O range.

Motion control

Motion control, also known as servo control or robotics, is a branch of automation that focuses on precisely controlling the movement of various components inside a machine. The movement of these different parts are usually controlled by rotary and linear actuators. Machine position and velocity can be regulated using a motion control device, like an electric motor, hydraulic pump, or servo actuator.

Achieving highly precise movements in industrial processes is vital for quality and consistency, yet this level of precision often comes at the cost of increased energy consumption and slower production speeds, so striking the right balance is essential.  

Fieldbus communications

Fieldbus networks are a means of communicating with input devices and output devices, without having to connect each individual device back to, for example, the PLC or industrial PC. Before its introduction, computers would connect using direct serial connections whereby only two devices could communicate per connection, whereas the fieldbus allows hundreds of analogue and digital points to connect simultaneously. In an industrial setting, this ensures the integration of numerous devices, along with standardised communication and compatibility.

By serving as the communication backbone, fieldbus allows various I/O devices to share information efficiently. Here, sensors collect data and send it to the fieldbus, while actuators receive commands from the same network.

This integration streamlines control, reduces wiring complexity and centralises monitoring, making it ideal for applications with extensive I/O requirements. However, those without an extensive I/O range can come across problems, especially in terms of scalability.

For instance, a narrow I/O range may create obstacles for manufacturers wanting to meet the diverse needs of their customers, because they lack the necessary sensor and actuator options. This, in turn, restricts market reach due to the limitations in being able to alter production lines for custom products.

EtherCAT is the answer 

EtherCAT is a communication protocol often used in industrial automation where quick data exchange between devices is essential, including those within a PLC. Moreover, it is highly scalable and can accommodate a large number of devices on a single network, making it suitable for both small-scale and large-scale industrial applications.

Digital options, such as Beckhoff's TwinCAT automation software, offers EtherCAT as a primary communication option. This not only enables users to configure, manage and control EtherCAT-based automation systems, but also provides EtherCAT Master functionality too.

For example, PLCs connected via EtherCAT can connect and control various aspects of the assembly process, ensuring synchronised movement of robots, conveyor belts and quality control sensors for precise coordination.

It must also be noted that this prevents companies from having to design raw data to scaled values in-house. Instead, the software has the modules to do that for you — a need that was highlighted at GDevCON and one that helps to plug the gaps in a plant’s production line.

Chris Knight is technical support engineer at Beckhoff UK